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By the rivers of Babylon

Every Wednesday I go to choir practice in the back room of a pub, The Rose and Crown. At the moment we are practising songs to participate in a joint-choir concert for the charity Water Aid; and one of the songs handed round recently was Rivers of Babylon. Or rather, Rivahs ahv Babylan, as the whole thing was phonetically spelt in Caribbean patois.

One of our number immediately said she didn’t feel comfortable singing these words. Around the room, heads nodded in agreement. The feeling was that there was something, if not exactly racist, then disrespectful and inappropriate in imitating black dialect to sing what was originally a slave song. The choir leader asked for a show of hands: who didn’t want to sing the words as printed? Every hand in the room went up. Including mine; I didn’t want anyone to think I was racist. But I did wonder afterwards if it really can be considered racist or inappropriate to sing dialect songs in dialect. Would anyone have objected to singing a song in Scottish dialect? Well, you might say that it’s different singing in patois because of the history of slavery. Maybe. But I wonder if there had been any black singers in the choir, would they have objected? I get the strong feeling they wouldn’t. And if they hadn’t objected, then would it have been OK for us whiteys to sing it like that?

Anyway, we decided to sing it in standard English. When we get to the Water Aid concert all the other choirs will probably be singing it in patois, but there you go.

  1. Mark Brafield permalink

    Singing in a foreign dialect can, indeed, be full of traps for the unwary. When my university choir visited Indonesia, we joined up with a local choir in a sort of musical exchange concert. They sang some Tudor anthems whilst our choir joined with them in some local folk – song arrangements. The men of our choir had to impersonate the sound of a mandolin strumming in the background, which, rather unfortunately, meant that they had to sing ‘plinky -plank wank wank’. The hardest thing was, of course, trying to do this with a straight face.

  2. Yes – I found it hard to keep a straight face reading this!

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